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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Invisible Empire

By Tom Morrow

One of the darkest chapter in American history was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized and murdered primarily African-American and Jewish citizens beginning after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Sadly, the organization still exists today, albeit underground.

“The  Klan,” has had three distinct past and present movements in the United States that have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as “white supremacy,” “white nationalism,” “anti-immigration,” and, especially in later iterations, “Nordicism,” “anti-Catholicism,” and anti-Semitism.” This hatred historically has been expressed through terrorism aimed at groups or individuals whom they opposed. Down through the years, all three movements have called for the “purification” of American society, and all are considered right wing extremist organizations.

The first Klan flourished in the southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. It was a Democrat Party-led group of politicians and officials, who had been displaced by Republican-led Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Klan sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the Confederate South, especially by using violence against African-American leaders and former slaves. With numerous chapters across the South, the Klan was suppressed around 1871, through federal law enforcement. Members made their own, often colorful, costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be terrifying, and to hide their identities.

The second KKK was resurrected in 1915, and flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, particularly in urban areas of the Midwest and West. It opposed Catholics and Jews, especially newer immigrants, and stressed opposition to the Catholic Church. This second organization adopted a standard white costume and used similar code words as the first Klan, while adding cross burnings and mass parades.

The third and current manifestation of the KKK emerged again in 1950s, in the form of small, local, unconnected groups that use the KKK name. They focus on opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, often using violence and murder to suppress activists. It is classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

As of 2016, the Anti-Defamation League puts total Klan membership nationwide at around 3,000, while the Southern Poverty Law Center puts it closer to 6,000 members.

Many groups and leaders, including prominent Protestant ministers such as Reinhold Niebuhr in Detroit, spoke out against the Klan, gaining national attention. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League was formed in the early 20th century in response to attacks against Jewish Americans and the Klan’s campaign to outlaw private schools. Opposing groups worked to penetrate the Klan’s secrecy. After one civic group began to publish Klan membership lists, there was a rapid decline in members.

Specific events also contributed to the decline. In Indiana, the scandal surrounding the 1925 murder trial of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson destroyed the image of the KKK as upholders of law and order. By 1926 the Klan was “crippled and discredited.”

Factionalism created one barrier, but many politicians, mostly Democrats and southern “Dixiecrats,” had supported the Klan simply out of expedience. When charges of crime and corruption began to taint the movement, those concerned about their political futures had even less reason to work on the Klan’s behalf.

By 1930 Klan membership in Alabama dropped to less than 6,000. Small independent units continued to be active in the industrial city of Birmingham. In the late 1940s and 1950s, members launched a reign of terror by bombing the homes of upwardly mobile African-Americans. Activism by such independent KKK groups increased as a reaction against the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1928 presidential election, the state voters overcame initial opposition to the Catholic candidate Al Smith, and voted the Democratic Party line as usual.

The following shows the change in the Klan’s estimated membership over time. (The years given represent approximate time periods.)

1920s – 4 million;

1924 – 6 million;

1930s – 30,000.

Today, an estimate as many as 6,000 clandestine Klan members still exist across the nation.


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